Make no mistake about it, Facebook’s rebranding to Meta and its vision for a metaverse is meant to distract from its current reputation woes. It may also prove a legitimate vision, albeit a more dystopian than utopian one. Mark Zuckerberg may well want to retreat to a safe, curated world where he can be anyone—a world where the inquiries of customers and governments drop away at the entry to the world like water bottles at a TSA screening station.
I don’t believe most of the world yearns to live cloistered in a digital alternative reality. Most of us visit adjacent worlds regularly, worlds that reflect and occasionally extend our physical world. The current digital domain certainty offers advantages over the physical world, with instant audio and visual communications, access to enormous collections of insight and propaganda, and conduits physical and virtual places that cater to our every whim 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even without AR headsets. Current digital technology augments and complements our world, it does not seek to replace it.
The metaverse idea of Zuckerberg’s, and others, suggests that the tangential digital world we live in isn’t enough. Zuckerberg has predecessors who offered compelling visions for things and experiences that creators intuit people will pay for if they only had the opportunity to. Walt Disney imagined amusement parks in an entirely new way. Because of his wealth and reputation, banks and sponsors went with him on his journey to invent and deploy Disneyland. And he was right.
The metaverse as alternative reality
The metaverse, unlike Disneyland, isn’t meant to be a destination reached in anticipation after a protracted longing—no, the metaverse is meant to be a perpetual place for people to visit, a virtual world that operates, perhaps on different rules, as an alternative to the real world. Neither physics nor morality needs to match their existing counterparts.
People can fly in the metaverse. “The Purge” could be legal in places in the metaverse. Privacy could be abolished in some metaverse locations. Just as with visiting a foreign nation, the visitor is under obligation to understand the rules of the place they are visiting. Depending on where the metaverse is housed, and how quickly regulatory agencies decide to police it (or not) will establish its claim autonomy.
The metaverse will not require negotiation to achieve a goal, just money. If the predominant ideas don’t appeal, buy an island, restrict access. The metaverse becomes potentially as isolated, attractive, and firewalled as Studio 54 at the peak of its 33-month run. There will be a surface, an underground, and a dark side, just as there is with the Internet. Only a monopoly operating as a police state will be able to even dissuade, hide, or perhaps limit activity that does not fit its business or ethical models.
As a concept, the metaverse will be implemented in many different ways. Eventually, likely sooner than later given the competitive nature of Meta’s rivals, the metaverse will fragment. While the Internet remains “open” it hosts many walled gardens. There is no reason at this time to see the metaverse as more open than the Internet—just the opposite, in that the motivation for its creation—and its conceptual underpinnings, aim at separateness as a feature. The metaverse will shatter into competing goals, currencies, and experiences—just like the real world.
The echo chambers Facebook professes to discourage sit at the center of its business model. People happy to have their thoughts and ideas recognized, encouraged, and elevated will spend more time in a place of comfort than in areas that ignore, denigrate, or marginalize. Society has always thrived when messages align, when the energy of the engaged reinforces. Negotiation, collaboration, mediation, seeking common ground—those take energy from a system, they require work.
Echo chambers not only require less energy than places where disparate ideas seek recognition, innovate, or require diplomacy—they generate more energy, more energy because the energy flows in one direction—it dissipates out of boredom perhaps, or when it needs to be used for defense against hostile forces, but otherwise, it creates its own glow that baths participants in a rich, nourishing light that strengthens beliefs.
The metaverse will most likely inherit the Internet’s ability to morph its protocols and platforms to create experiences limited only by imagination. Those that people migrate to early will likely become entrenched, few spaces abandoned early will rise from digital carcasses, but scavengers will pick at the bones, use the nutrients to build anew. The metaverse will prove a roiling environment filled with equal parts novelty, community, and depravity.
The metaverse and uncertainty
The metaverse will reflect us. Or it won’t. People will refuse to pick up their headsets and join the foray into an even more immersive digital world. The visions of a Ready Player One will fall flat not because experiments will fail, but because the existing set of features in this world will prove too compelling to abandon. We have so much, and so much to fix in the real world, that abandoning it in favor of a nascent world that we already know won’t fulfill our fantasies, will seem counterintuitive.
“Why build a new world to break, when the broken world we live in needs our attention?”
The metaverse may be a nice place to visit occasionally. Like Disneyland, it may offer tantalizing experiences that cannot be found elsewhere. The metaverse may be worthy of excursions. But that isn’t the vision of an alternative reality where people work, where children learn, where we manipulate three-dimensional versions of products before we buy them for ourselves, and where increasingly if the visionaries get it right, we buy digital things for a digital world funded by real-world resources.
We have already been introduced to the metaverse via Second Life, and it has found its audience. As Dean Takahashi a VentureBeat reported in a September 3, 2021 post (read The DeanBeat: Will the metaverse bring the second coming of Second Life? here) 200,000 daily active users still engage in the sprawl of Second Life, investing in a world of over 2 billion user-generated assets, paying creators over $80 million a year in actual cash from virtual transactions. Second Life remains a successful business, but a limited one.
I tried Second Life. It wasn’t for me. Many others have as well. And while Zuckerberg and team may create a Second Life that out Second Lifes Second Life, it will likely not find a long-term population that exceeds those of the 18-year experiment that is Second Life.
As a scenario planner, I know that any assertion I make under uncertainty will likely be proven wrong over deep time. Meta may develop a captivating platform that brings people into a world of Farmville farms that reflect real crops in the midwestern United States, where skeuomorphic photo albums replace flat UIs in Facebook photos, where people gamble for days in immersive virtual casinos, less the smoke, and where work never requires one to dress as the avatar de jour always presents as appropriate.
I am more than skeptical. I am hopeful that humanity is on the verge of reengaging with the planet, and with the universe. Rather than isolation and digital segregation we should direct our energy toward floating islands of plastic, rising sea levels, clean water, food for those who cannot afford it—yes, I have a globalization bias. I have a redistribution and care for my fellow person bias. I am not ashamed of those traits.
I do not find retreat and indulgence in a permanent state of self-isolation a morally acceptable path. I do not believe that the disenfranchised should require an alternative reality to find equality—that equity needs a new currency, or that social justice can only be found by adopting a new skin.
Facebook established itself by connecting people. It exploited those connections to become a dominant player on the Internet. Some people may be fooled by a change in platform, but do not be fooled, the metaverse will build upon the same ideology. I won’t be. The metaverse is a 3D version of Facebook, with the same potential for good and ill as its predecessors.
It is not a matter of if people choose to use the metaverse for good it will be a good place,—that is a non sequitur. People will choose to use the metaverse as much for corruption and avarice as they do for enlightenment and connection. How new social structures evolve is not an uncertainty, but a driving force. We must ask then, early on, if we need to spend our energy and our souls creating an alternative to this world, or if we should reconnect to this world and try to bend it to a better will than we have so far.
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